It was a week after Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp had given his State of the Coast Guard address. Capt. Joseph P. Kelly, commanding officer of Air Station Elizabeth City, had set aside an afternoon for all-hands training to watch the speech and reflect on themes from the address.
In the two hours surrounding the scheduled training time, however, the SAR alarm had sounded. Not once, but three times. In a period of just a few short hours crews would launch out of Elizabeth City one after the other. By day’s end four lives would be saved.
The first distress call came in from the fishing vessel Seafarer. The 67-foot fishing vessel lost power and the vessel’s sister ship started to tow the ship back to homeport. Before long the weather deteriorated and Seafarer’s sister ship had lost the tow. They had also completely lost sight of the Seafarer.
The fishing vessel was in serious trouble 15 miles east of Assateague Island, Md., and Elizabeth City’s ready crew, CG6031 piloted by Lt. Paul Johansen, was launched. Once on scene they located a fisherman in a raft and hoisted him to safety; it was the first live hoist for Johansen as a qualified aircraft commander.
After talking to the fisherman, the aircrew was able to locate the debris from the boat but no other survivors. The 6031 departed to get the fisherman medical attention and refuel. Upon landing, the 6031 crew wanted to go back out to provide cover for the 47-foot rescue boat from Station Chincoteague and continue the search effort. Johansen was worried about the rescue boat and concerned with the conditions; he reported the weather had gone “from pretty bad to awful” with winds gusting at more than 50 knots.
The 6031 headed back out but after searching more than 560 nautical miles off the eastern shores of Virginia and past nightfall, the search was suspended the next day following a first light search.
As CG6031 battled weather closer to shore, the crews of CG6043 and CG2004 were more than 170 miles offshore. A crewman aboard motor vessel Horizon Trader had fractured ribs and a punctured lung. The flight surgeon determined the injured crewman was in desperate need of medical attention. The massive ship was rocking in the turbulent seas and Petty Officer 2nd Class John Knight spent an hour working with the crew of the ship to bring the crewman from the ships galley to the deck and get him in the litter and up to the aircraft.
Under the watchful eye of CG2004 – commanded by Lt. Cmdr. James McManus, monitoring communications and fuel burn for their helicopter brethren – the crew’s performance under such violent conditions was a testament to both their training and proficiency. In fact, it was Knight’s first search and rescue case since returning to duty, Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Dunn’s first hoist as a qualified flight mechanic, and Lt. Claire Reilly’s first operational case as a physician’s assistant in support of the air station.
As the 6031, 6043 and 2004 continued to execute their respective SAR case; a call came in from Sector North Carolina. A 41-foot sailboat had lost power and was sinking off Cape Lookout, N.C. The two sailors did have lifejackets aboard, but they had no other survival gear and no life raft.
The CG6012 crew was launched and arrived on scene after dark. The rescue swimmer was put into the sea near the sailing vessel and safely coaxed the two sailors into the water and swam them away from their sailboat, allowing the crew to hoist the men while avoiding the hazard of the sailboat’s mast. Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Watson was the aircrew’s rescue swimmer and it was his first operational deployment since reporting aboard.
There were a lot of firsts that day for Elizabeth City. But it was only in the finest traditions at the air station. While no planned missions were on the schedule that afternoon, the air station mustered a response to every call for assistance.
“You all responded, as you always do, when the public needed the best from our Coast Guard,” Kelly told his crews the next day. “Proficiency, professionalism, mastery of craft, a little luck and perhaps a little divine intervention – it all came together with great results. Most importantly, you all came back safe.”
In spite of the missions, the bulk of the crew ultimately heard Papp’s State of the Coast Guard address. Papp spoke of his optimism for the service, stating his confidence was because of the men and women of the Coast Guard. Kelly couldn’t agree more.
“I am never surprised by the collective devotion to duty of my folks. I am, at varying times however, blessed with the opportunity to be personally reminded of the reason for the commandant’s optimism,” said Kelly. “That day’s effort gave me a real and tangible moment to tell my team how honored I am to serve alongside them and what a privilege it is to serve as their commanding officer.”
Elizabeth City had four aircraft flying in support of three separate cases during one monster winter storm. Their proficiency saved four lives that day; it doesn’t get any more Semper Paratus than that.